March 30, 2017

In April’s Boston Magazine, David Bernstein calls for the abolishment of the House, arguing that such a move would “improve efficiency, transparency, and responsiveness to the public.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with Bernstein’s identification of the problem, I certainly don’t agree with his cure. Why is that?  Well, given the uniqueness of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature (which Bernstein cites as an example in support of his argument), political scientists have looked at what impact this structure has on the state’s politics.  Ultimately, it’s not entirely clear that the evidence supports these his claims. 

For instance, Squire (1993) find that evaluations of the legislatures by residents of Nebraska were no different than evaluations from other nearby states like Nebraska and South Dakota. Rogers (2003) examines bill production in the states before and after changes in camerialism in the state (there have been other states that have used and discarded the unicameral system) and finds no evidence that the switch to bicameralism affects legislative productivity. 

And despite the fact that Nebraska’s unicam is also nonpartisan, differences between Democrats and Republicans in electoral campaigns are similar in that state as compared to other states (Wright and Schaffner 2002), and there is increasing polarization between those two parties in the legislature (Masket and Shor 2011).  To summarize the scholarly literature on the subject, Squire and Moncrief argue (2015, 9), “it is not clear, however, that the unicameral functions more economically, efficiently, or effectively than other state legislatures.”

To be fair, I share Bernstein’s frustration with the lack of transparency in the Massachusetts state legislature; indeed, I’ve blogged about it here and here before.  But before we try to energize and mobilize the voters of Massachusetts for a massive and radical restructuring of our state government, it seems to me that we ought to be sure that the remedy we’re proposing will cure the disease.  Given the evidence above, I am not sure that’s the case here.  

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